For millions of years humans consumed animal fats as an important part of their daily diet and never gave it a second thought. But by the 1950s, animal fat began to be seen as a primary factor contributing to heart disease. Doctors and nutritionists advocated limiting fat in general and using vegetable oils instead.
Now, the pendulum appears to be swinging in the opposite direction, and for the average person, two questions arise as a result.
First, should I include animal fat in my diet? And second, does the way an animal is raised make a difference in the nutritional quality of its fat?
How our view of saturated fats has changed
Saturated and unsaturated fats are composed of fatty acids that are bonded together. However, saturated fats have more hydrogen-carbon bonds than unsaturated fats, leaving no gaps in the chain of molecules.
Most saturated fats — coconut oil is an exception — come from animals such as cows, pigs, sheep and poultry. Sources of unsaturated fats include olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds and oily fish like salmon. Saturated fats are a solid texture at room temperature because of their additional hydrogen/carbon bonds, while unsaturated fats are liquid.
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids are higher in saturated fat, while omega-6 fatty acids are higher in unsaturated fats. While both are required for optimal health, the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet should be much higher in proportion to the amount of omega-6 fatty acids.
Saturated fat and heart disease
The idea of saturated fat being the primary driver of heart disease was first popularized by Ancel Keys, a pathologist at the University of Minnesota. Unfortunately, Keys’ research was badly flawed — he only chose countries with data that supported his theory, his sample size was small, and the data he referenced on actual fat intake over the long term was incorrect.
Other studies along this line had their own major problems, such as failing to recognize and account for smoking, another leading cause of heart disease. Keys was an aggressive promoter of his theory and managed to convince the American Heart Association of its validity. However, later studies do not support Keys’ theories and in most cases, actually contradict his findings.
Fats in the human diet
Humans are different from other primates in two major ways. First, we walk upright on two legs all the time. Second, we have much larger brains in comparison to our body mass. These large brains of ours require a lot of energy — 16 times more than the energy required for skeletal muscle, to be precise.
To support this brain, we need to follow diets that are high in energy garnered from carbohydrates or fat. Humans are perfectly capable of digesting meat and animal fat (as shown by gastrointestinal tract differences when compared to other primates).
Consuming an adequate amount of fat is critical to ensuring the proper brain development of fetuses and infants. In fact, the brain is approximately 60 percent fat by weight. Human milk contains sugar (primarily lactose), fat and protein, in that order. The amount of fat in milk is an important factor with respect to providing the energy needed for normal growth and development of an infant.
- The early research on saturated fat and heart disease was flawed and not supported by later findings.
- Humans need fat for energy, brain development, brain function, and for the health of our nervous systems, especially during infancy and childhood.
- Humans are biologically designed to consume and digest fat.
- “Healthy” fats have a higher ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids. The latter increases inflammation, which may be a factor in a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease.
Pastured vs CAFOs: How animals are raised, and why it matters
Commercially available meats — especially beef — are usually raised in two different settings. Grass-fed or pastured meats come from animals that grazed grass or received feed-stuffs like hay and silage throughout their lives. Beef, pork, lamb and poultry can be raised as grass-fed meat, although for poultry the term “pastured” is more commonly used than “grass-fed.”
The other method is known as the Confined Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO.
“New farming technologies reduce costs, allowing better production with less land and capital investment,” says Christophe Baril, financial editor for Hitachi’s agricultural equipment leasing branch. “When properly managed, CAFOs are a low-cost source of meat, dairy, and eggs. The flipside is that certain of these practices have been linked to health and environmental concerns.”
CAFO animals, like cows, may begin their lives on grass but are eventually shipped to feedlots where they’re fed highly concentrated rations that depend heavily on corn and soybeans, along with various grains and non-grass foods. Poultry and pigs raised in CAFOs may never go outside of the building in which they are born.
Because CAFO operations crowd animals together, the risk of disease is high, so it’s considered good practice to feed antibiotics to the animals on a routine basis. CAFO meat can be either organic or conventional.
How animal fats differ
Grass-fed animals typically have less fat than CAFO animals. In beef, for example, they may have less marbling, which helps contribute to the succulence and taste of something like a steak. The composition of the fat is also different. Grass-fed beef has an improved fatty acid profile compared to CAFO beef. It contains higher levels of conjugated lineoleic acid (CLA) and Omega-3 fatty acids, precursors for the antioxidant vitamins A and E and other cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Pesticide residues accumulate in fatty tissues, so meat that is raised on foods grown with pesticides and herbicides (such as the GMO corn and soy used in CAFOs) typically has more residue from these chemicals. Pesticide and herbicide residues can also be problematic for the environment, with some of the damage they cause potentially persisting for years.
Organic vs. conventional farming
Those who practice organic farming grow their hay, grain, vegetables and fruits differently. While they may use a limited number of pesticides and herbicides, they’re less toxic products with good safety records that have been in use for many years. They’re more likely to use compost or animal manure than commercial chemical fertilizers and don’t feed their chattel antibiotics routinely.
Many also practice sustainable farming, meaning land conservation and improving fertility are key components of their farming methods. Conventional farmers tend to use synthetic fertilizers, many of which are high in nitrogen, leaving plants more susceptible to disease and insect attacks as a result. High-nitrogen water runoff also causes problems with pollution and algae build-up.
Research shows that organically raised foods have more nutritional value, lower pesticide and herbicide residues, and lower levels of contamination from disease-causing organisms.
- Grass-fed animals have a healthier fat and nutrient composition than CAFO-raised animals.
- Organically-grown foods and meat contain a higher amount of important nutrients and lower levels of pesticides and herbicides.
- CAFOs are rarely if ever considered to be humane environments for animals. This can greatly affect the taste and overall quality of the finished product, not to mention the welfare of the animal itself.
- Grass-fed and pastured meats are more expensive than CAFO meats, primarily due to the increased length of time they need to mature and the additional labor involved.
- Organic fruits, vegetables and grains are typically more expensive than their conventional counterparts due to the increased labor they require for insect and weed control.
The bottom line
The issues surrounding how farm animals are raised and fed are complex. Whether you’re a vegan raw foodist, a paleo enthusiast, or simply trying to maintain a balanced diet, your personal values should come into play when deciding what kind of foods you want on your plate. Your financial situation likely also plays a role in your decision-making process.
The information presented here obviously just skims the surface of these issues. However, it should still provide some helpful guidance for those trying to choose between grass-fed or pastured meats and conventionally-raised factory farm meats.